Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Recovering Sympathetic Ears

A friend in college used to respond to counterarguments by repeating his previous points louder and with more verbal emphasis.  We used to joke with him that being louder did not make his argument more convincing or his position more correct.  But when we stop engaging in thoughtful dialogue with conversation partners who disagree with us, there is no option but to dig into our own argument with greater intensity and wit.

Such is the state of much modern communication, that we often shout and hurl insults, apparently having lost any sense of true dialogue ("dia," meaning 'between', and "logos," meaning 'words').  There is very little "words between people" anymore--at least not in public discussions.  Rather, we tend toward monologues that overlap one another.  We have become culturally formed to surround ourselves with "like-minded" people and to develop strong talking points.  We don't so much as share ideas as take sides with ideas that are already out there.  To look at the exchange of ideas in our world, and unfortunately in the Church, one could easily become convinced that clever and spiteful wit = true.

While learning how to develop convincing arguments in college, a mentor and professor of mine, Warren Smith, taught his students that the first step in learning and developing arguments is engaging in all thoughts and arguments in the most sympathetic way possible. Regardless of what we were reading, he would often say, "Remember to read sympathetically the first time you read it."  This requires great humility.  When we think we already know the answers, the temptation is to dismiss ideas that do not already resonate with what we think we know.

Recently, as I read news stories about divisions in the United Methodist Church, and as I read pastors and church leaders give voice to their various sides of the different debates, I feel driven toward cynicism.  What makes the Church different than any other organization with various caucuses of activists and interest groups? I speak of the denominational church, and am blessed to currently serve a church that is not characterized in this way, but it does happen at the local level too.  If this behavior drives me toward cynicism, what is it doing to our congregations?  What does the inability to model loving sympathetic dialogue do to our ability to witness to a Savior who refused to argue on the terms of Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees and Herodians?  Can we recover sympathetic ears that are quick to listen, and disciplined tongues that are slow to speak (James 1: 19)?  What would it look like for everyone who calls themselves Christian to be known, not by their angle, their method of interpretation, their view on politics, but their love--and more specifically their love for one another (John 13: 35).

While we are called to love the outcast and downtrodden among us, this is not how Jesus said we would be known.  While we are challenged to be pure in belief, thought, and deed, this is not how Jesus said we would be known.  At the core of Christian identity is love for one another.  If we neglect love for one another with the angry, witty, loud arguments that have become so common, I wonder if the content of our disagreement even matters--for we will have lost our core identity, no longer representing Christ.  We lose the ability to offer a new way when we merge our voices with the prevailing competing voices in society.  Can sympathetic dialogue be recovered by the Church, and can it work in our diverse local congregations?


  1. I'm really happy we have a loving congregation and that we care more for people than we do for ideas. While there's nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone, we need to remember to do it with love, not with anger or spite.

    Thanks for this reminder!

  2. It is good to remember that local is more real than global, sometimes. I find our congregation to be a place where not everyone agrees, but usually everyone loves (we all fall sometimes). It just saddens me to see people I think of as friends on different social and political "teams" speak so vile about one another. Surely this is not representative of the Christ that all of us proclaim.

  3. Super glad to read this. It speaks volumes to me.

  4. I especially think it is deceptively hurtful when people in the church insult each other as they argue about how to best love others in hot-button justice issues.